Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) were once one of the most numerous large mammals in California, with populations estimated to have been as high as 500,000 prior to the Gold Rush era. In the mid-1800s, pronghorn were nearly extirpated by market-shooting to feed California’s rapidly expanding human population.
The remaining population of pronghorn has long been understudied. Prior data collected on the species have been limited to herd counts and habitat selection. In recent years, there has been growing concern over pronghorn populations, particularly in northeastern California. During the harsh winter of 1992, the number of pronghorn dropped almost 50 percent to an estimated 5,000 individuals. The northeastern portion of the state currently supports a population of approximately 4,500 animals that occur primarily in Modoc, Lassen, Siskiyou and Shasta counties and has been fairly stable, with slow declines, since about 2000. The herd’s inability to rebound has prompted scientists to try to understand the specific conditions leading to the declines.
In 2016 the Institute for Wildlife Studies (IWS) completed a two-year study, with funding from CDFW’s Big Game Management Account, which explored aspects of the pronghorn population on the Modoc Plateau. The study involved 48 does (adult females) and 42 fawns that were radio-collared and followed until their deaths or the study’s end. The researcher’s objectives were to learn more about the pronghorn use of habitat, aspects of their reproduction and factors affecting survival of does and fawns.
The researchers found that for most of the year, pronghorn used open areas with less shrubby and more herbaceous vegetation within their sagebrush-steppe habitats. But during fawning, when does need to hide their young, they shifted to spending more time in areas with greater densities of shrubs and juniper trees. The annual survival rate for does in the study was 69 percent, which is low compared to other pronghorn populations. Mountain lions accounted for 80 percent of predator-related mortalities, most of which occurred during and just after the peak birthing period when does are most vulnerable. Fawn survival averaged 44 percent, a higher-than-typical figure, with unknown causes (37.5 percent) or suspected coyote predation (21 percent) accounting for most fawn mortalities.
The adults’ increased use of shrubby areas and conifer woodlands during fawning suggests an important factor in the population’s continued decline. Juniper woodlands have been encroaching on the sagebrush-steppe habitat in the Modoc Plateau for decades, and these juniper trees provide areas of concealment for ambush predators such as mountain lions. Most ungulate studies demonstrate that adult survival plays a more critical role in population stability than juvenile survival. CDFW may be able to reduce adult pronghorn mortality through habitat restoration – the removal of encroaching junipers could help to reduce predations by lions, and potentially increase the Modoc pronghorn population.
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Arborimus albipes, a CA Critically Imperiled Species of Special Concern
The white-footed vole is one of the least-studied (and most difficult to catch!) mammals in North America. CDFW Environmental Scientist Dr. Scott Osborn, his collaborator Dr. Tim Bean of Humboldt State University’s Wildlife Department, and a small team of field biologists know that better than anyone – they spent the summer of 2014 setting traps for them in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. Designated a Species of Special Concern by CDFW, only nine records of the species were known in California prior to their study, which was aimed at determining how environmental conditions, such as climate (and future climate change), might affect their distribution.
Habitat modeling by Bean (based on the previous records) identified areas with high habitat suitability for the white-footed vole. Ten study sites were chosen along the North Coast for the field study, including three where voles had been successfully trapped in the 1990s. Using live traps (both pitfall traps made of two coffee cans taped together and Sherman live traps baited with oats and peanut butter), the team successfully trapped three voles. Notably, one of these was the first recorded capture of a white-footed vole in Del Norte County. All three voles were returned unharmed to their capture site after basic measurements and assessments of food plant preferences were made.
Although three voles might not seem like a large return on the investment of many hours of field work, the team actually had one of the highest capture rates of white-footed voles of any small mammal study in its geographic range, which includes coastal Oregon and the North Coast of California. Vegetation plots suggest that white-footed voles are tightly associated with stands of red alder trees – so now the biologists know that’s a likely place to find them. The habitat modeling work indicates that suitable habitat may currently exist as far south as Mendocino County, which is outside the known geographic range of the vole. On the other hand, it is possible that this species’ range may contract northward in a warmer and drier future. Open the Full Report (PDF)